(AFP) - Some 300 pro- and anti-government demonstrators in Azerbaijan showered each other with stones and bottles Monday in a clash over an opposition leader's alleged contacts with Armenian secret police, but there were no reports of serious injuries.
A pro-government rally faced off with the opposition across a traffic-packed street in central Baku just days after prosecutors announced the arrest of the leader of an anti-government youth group for his alleged contacts with agents from Azerbaijan's rival Armenia. About 150 members of the opposition National Front of Azerbaijan party chanted "Freedom!" and whistled as an equal number of pro-government demonstrators shouted into loud speakers just meters away, an AFP reporter on the scene saw.
Protestors scattered and regrouped as rocks and bottles thrown by the opposing sides crashed onto the asphalt. Police pushed back the opposition supporters, many wearing orange shirts to echo the "Orange Revolution" that swept Ukraine last year, until demonstrators from both sides dispersed.
Tensions between the opposition and the authorities have escalated ahead of parliamentary elections scheduled for November 6. Ruslan Bashirli, the leader of the Yeni Fikir opposition youth movement, was arrested last week for allegedly planning to overthrow the government in a plot hatched by Armenian secret police, according to prosecutors.
A video of a meeting with men prosecutors claim were Armenian agents posing as democracy activists from fellow former Soviet republics Armenia and Georgia has been airing on national television in Azerbaijan since the arrest.
"We're here because we don't like what we've seen on television. Bashirli sat at one table with the Armenians," said 19-year-old Javid Kerimov who said he supported the government of President Ilham Aliev.
One popular TV channel, Lider, has interspersed footage from Bashirli's meeting with pictures of Azerbaijanis killed or mutilated during a bitter war between Azerbaijan and Armenia in the early 1990s. The opposition has denied Bashirli plotted to overthrow the government, calling the case a state-sponsored smear campaign aimed at pitting the public against anti-government forces.
"The authorities are creating a situation of civil confrontation, and they carry responsibility for this," National Front leader Ali Kerimli said at a press conference following the demonstration. "Today the confrontation is small-scale, and we are doing everything to prevent it expanding any further."